Laos was once called Lane Xang- Land of a Million Elephants. It is a landlocked country with the Mekong River forming much of the border between Laos and Thailand, while the Annamite Mountain range separates Laos and Vietnam. Laos also shares borders with China in the north, Myanmar to the north west andCambodia in the south.
Roads; Laos has 40,000km of roadways of which 4000km are paved. In the rainy season many roads become so muddy that they are impassable. Infrastructure is growing, however, and there are certainly enough pave roads to travel to serveral different regions that the country offers.
Population in 2008 was estimated at 6.7 million, which makes Laos one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. The majority of the population live in the north ofthe country.
Agriculture remains a major source of income, the main crop is rice which is also the main diet staple. Other important crops re corn, tobaccco, cotton and coffee. Livestock consists of pigs, cattle, buffalo, ducks and chickens. Laos has excellent soil and favourable climatic conditions for year round growing.
Climate One wet and one dry season. Wet season is June – September, then the dry season takes over. The change is abrupt rather than gradual. November – January are a little cooler which offers an extremely comfortable climate to travel in, although some warm clothes may be needed especially in the north of the country. During the wet season it rains twice per day, early morning and late afternoon. These periods are interspersed with partly cloudy skies and sunny periods where it often feels humid.
– Train: Vientiane – Bangkok, Thailand across the friendship bridge is the only train sercive opperating in Laos.
– Bus Excellent form of transportation in Laos and a great way to meet the local people. Economical and practical, the local busses are the cheapest and the most authentic Laos expeience. The best way to book a local bus is to turn up at the local bus station and buy a ticket for the next bus departing to your desired destination. Arrive an hour before to ensure you get a seat (rather than a plastic stool which get put in the aisle when the bus is full). Pick your seat carfully, if you can help it I would suggest you try to sit away from speakers as the music can be played pretty loudly.
VIP and 1st class bus services also exist. The bus tickets that hostels and travel agents sell are private busses. They will tel you that they are tourist busses, this is not strictly true as anyone can buy these tickets, they are just more expensive than the local busses and everyone is ensured a seat. However don’t be fooled into thinking that you will have a comfortable journey, the leg room is often minimal with very cold aircon blasting out.
-Car a 4 wheel drive would be advisable if you are thinking about renting one as roads are muddy and potholed.
-Bicyles are easy to rent in many towns throughout Laos. They are a perfect way to get around. The slow pace of llife even in the capital makes cycling around a pleasurable experience. 10,000kip for a city bike is a reaonable price. For mountain bikes, expect to pay in the region of 40,000kip per day. A passport or credit card as deposit is usually expected.
Motorbikes are possible to hire, but from experience I would suggest that the quality available does not match the price in Laos. Much better to rent one in Vietnam, Cambodia or Thailand. In Laos the average price to rent a motorbike for the day was 80,000kip ($10) whereas in the other countries mentioned, a good price was $5 per day. Also, it is worth bearing in mind the current prices of petrol. During our time in Laos the prices seemed the most expensive. With Laos’ roads often being muddy, especially in rainy season, riding a motorbike is a risk and if you really want to do it perhaps look into hiring mudbike instead (more expensive). Be warned, in less touristic off the beaten track areas it may be difficult to find motorbike hire options.
Route idea: The south central area of Laos has some good paved roads that make for a good tour over a few days. It is possible to rent bikes in Pakse and ride inland to Tad Lo, Salavan and Attapeu. We didn’t do it, but saw several bikers doing this route. In the dry season this would be a fantastic way to see the unmissable area of the the Bolivan Plateau.
-Plane Vietiane, Luang Prabang and Pakse have airports. Lao Airlines is the national carrier. International airlines are; Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways, Air Asia, Vietnam Airlines and Malaysia Airlines. International destinations are bangkok, Kumming, Chiang Mai, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Hanoi and Kuala Lumpar.
-Boat The Mekong s navigable all year round. A popular route to take by boat is Luang Prabang to Huay Xai (Border town to Chiang Khon,Thailand). There are two options, either the speed boat or the slow boat. I will always recommend the slow boat option. The speedboat takes 6hours, but looks helllish. You have to wear huge helmets and it looks like a petrifing ride. The boat vibrates and is extremely noisy- not the most fitting experience to enjoy the lazy Mekong.
The slow boat takes 16hours over two days. Each leg of the trip is 8 hours. The first leg is Luang Prabang to Pak Beng and the second is Pak Beng to Huay Xai. Buy tickets for each leg at the starting destination. each leg costs 120,000 kip. The route is incredible scenic and worth it. Tip: Take or own food and water, the boat shop is overpriced. Ensure you take enough money to stay over in Pak Beng and pay for the second boat as there are no cash points between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai.
The Nam Ou is also navigable throughout the year, unless it has been extremely dry in shich case it is worth checking beforehand. The Nam Ou is the only river in SE Asia that has not been dammed. Although there are major plans that could change this in the next 5years. It is posssible to take a boat from Luang Prabang to Phongsali via Muang Ngoy and Nong Khiaw.
Luang Prabang – Muang Ngoy:
“travel the entire distance from Luang Prabang by boat along the Nam Ou, on of the most stunning rivers in Laos. The narrow, shallow waterway is lined with searing rock cliff-faces, jungle-clad mountains, small sandy beaches and bamboo shack villages.
The journey up or down river from Luang Prabang takes around seven hours, and will cost approximately $10 per person for a boatload of eight people. Boats are small, open sided with a low roof, and so while the journey is not the most luxurious, this is well compensated for by the beauty of the view and the experience of dangling your feet in the gold-dust sprinkled water after a picnic lunch on the beach.”
From Cambodia a Visa on arrival for Laos is now available (as of Feb 2010) when entering from Arriving from Cambodia overland (previously was not available), with an official “Visa on Arrival” office incorporated into the checkpoint. The nearest Cambodian town is Stung Treng, and the border is a 90-minute speedboat or bus ride away. Note that the border is lightly used, with almost no onward public transport available at the border (therefore book through transport from Stung Treng to Ban Nakasang for Si Phan Don/Don Det) and both customs officers and transport providers have a reputation of gouging foreigners, although this seems to have improved recently (currently both Cambodian and Laos border officials request US$1 stamp fee per country). Crossing the border (Oct 2010) the Cambodia officers will ask for US$1 for exit stamp.You can tell them you don’t have any and they will still stamp it. On the Laos side they will demand $2 for entry stamp, if you refuse they will not stamp it, (you will need the stamp to get out), so you have no choice than to pay the bribe. Note if you cross the border by boat, you will have to return by road to the border checkpoint to officiate your arrival (ie. get your passport stamped) in Laos.
More Visa info is come
Visa Extension is possible. It is possible to go to the visa office in Vientiane and apply for an extension. The application should take one day to process. For each day extra it currently costs $2 per day and $3 administration. It is also possible in Luang Prabang, but be careful not to be overcharged in travel agents. It is best to do it yourself and go to the visa office instead. Depending on how many days you want to extend your visa for, it may be more cost effective to cross te friendship bridge from Vientiane to Thailand and get another visa on re-entry.
Laos currency is Kip.
Thai baht and dollars can be spent in larger cities. ATMs can only be found in amin cities such as Pakse, Vientiane and Luang Prabang, so ensure you have enough money when visiting smaller locations. All ATMs have a service charge but not all of them will notify you of this. It is worth asking inside the bank so you know how much you are going to get stung.
Outside of Laos it is difficult to exchange kip, so try and do this at the border towns before you leave the country.
Places to visit:
Champasak visit the magnificent Wat Phu. Rent bicycles out for the day and visit the quiet Wat. A good alternative and much less visited place to Ankor Wat.
Tad Lo in the Bolaven Plateau. A quiet and beautiful village set on the side of a waterfall and river. A slow pace of life with very friendly locals makes this a great place to get off the beaten track and experience the less visited region in the south of Laos. Banboo bungalows, hammocks, jungle treks, elephants, waterfalls, local tradions in tact. Tad Lo will be a highlight!
GET THERE: Local bus from Pakse. Or rent a motorbike out and tour the Plataeu for a week or more.
STAY: Mamma Pap’s. The cheapest and most filling food in town. Mamma Pap will take care of you and won’t let you go hungry. She has reasonable rates for her bungalows (20,000 kip), but just down the road there are bungalows on the riverside for 25,000-30,000 kip with a waterfall view.
“Pakse, the transportation and trade hub of southern Laos, is the gateway to both the Bolaven Plateau and the sublime Four Thousand Islands. The interior behind the Bolavan, covering what is often referred to as the “Remote South” — the provinces of Salavan, Sekong and Attapeu — is a highlight for those who want to rough it and get well and truly off the beaten track.” From: http://www.travelfish.org/region/laos/southern_laos
4000 Islands, just shy of the Cambodian border, lies Si Phan Don, idyllic islands where a bamboo bungalow goes cheap and the stunning sunsets are free. Cycle around, see the dolphins, savour the atmosphere — a visit to Don Khong, Don Dhet and Don Khon .
Far larger than Don Dhet, Don Khon is skipped by many budget travellers because most of the accommodation is mid-range. However although there aren’t 40-odd places to choose from, there are budget options here and staying on Don Khon is far more of a Lao experience than Don Dhet. There is a better range of eateries than on Don Dhet and the options for cycling and walking are considerably more extensive. The main disadvantage (aside from the generally higher cost of accommodation) is that in early-to-mid afternoon the island is swarmed by day trippers from Pakse and Thailand who descend on the island in droves — fortunately they are only there for an hour or so.
Don Dhet If you’re on the way here expecting to experience the local culture, prepare to be very, very disappointed. If on the other hand, all you want to do is relax in a hammock for a week (or a month) meet and talk to travellers and eat traveller food with yet more travellers, then you’re in the right place. Certainly a beautiful area, daily sunsets and sunrises are equally stunning, there’s a wealth of activities — waterfalls, boat trips, cycling trips, hiking, camping and extended hammock laying — with which you can busy yourself with for days or weeks.
Thakek is the town to base yourself in to visit many extrordinary caves that have only opened to the public and tourists in the last couple of years. The town itself is not a great place o spend time and unfortunately the accomodation options are slim for backpackers. Be prepared to be overcharged in the only hostel in the town. The caves are worth seeing but don’t visit in rainy season as you will be lucky to reach them because flooding is common.
Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoy on the Nam Ou River are a must. Make the effort and you will not regret it. The area surrounding these beautiful typical Laos villages is stunning. Caves, jungle, waterfalls, treks, and plenty of oppertunities to hang out in a hammock and watch the river life plod along.
Elephant Village: Based just outside of Luang Prabang, this German run operation has an excellent reputation for looking after their elephants and recuing them from logging activities as well as orphans that have a small chance of survival. They are not worked too hard with the exception of giving tourists rides a few hours a day.
We took a 2 day option that worked out at the time to be around $70 each, including all meals, accommodation, elephant rides, learning how to control elephants and bathing them. All the activities you needed to be able to spend some real quality time with tem, learn how to control them alone and while sitting on their necks with no seats etc. A real “Mahout experience”, as it is called (Mahouts were the original elephant trainers of Laos).